“The truth which has called us. This truth is much less the truth we find than the truth that finds us.” Fr Euan’s sermon for the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas.
St Thomas Aquinas, whose feast we celebrate in the Dominican Order today, 28th January, is best known for his Summa Theologica, a work which he said was intended for beginners in theology. Nonetheless he wrote a great deal more than that, such as commentaries on the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose works had only recently been rediscovered in the Latin speaking West, as well as other theological works. His other ‘Summa’, the Summa Contra Gentes, which means the summation of theology against the peoples or gentiles, is believed to have been written to expound the Christian faith for Muslims, and also – we should not pretend otherwise – to convert them to the Christian Faith.
This Summa, in its prologue, tells us something about St Thomas’ purpose in studying and writing theology, not to mention his preaching, which as a member of the Order of Preachers, was part of his life. He says that the ultimate end of the universe is truth. That is not obviously true in itself. We might doubt that truth is all that important to people. When we vote in elections, we look for employment, and financial gain. We might be concerned with justice too, but who sees politics as being about the truth? Still we would like our concerns to be dealt with honestly. To claim that truth is itself not just an end but the ultimate end seems unconvincing. Yet if we look at our ordinary life, I would suggest that we are always interested in the truth. We gossip with each other, because we want to know things about life. We like detective stories. Before the invention of video recording, people used to rush home for the last episode of a mystery story on TV, because they really wanted to know what the resolution of the mystery would be. We like to know things and we don’t like to be lied to. An uninformed life would seem to be a lesser life.
There are deeper questions that eventually we may ask in life. The questions about who we are, why we are, what are we for? If we go through life without asking these questions, it is, I think, more a case of repression, a fear of asking these questions rather than a lack of interest. Those questions are always with us, however uneasy or unsure we are about the answers. So I think we can see that truth is a consideration for all of us, that we long for the truth to be revealed, and that the truth is something to do with our happiness. Yet St Thomas says more than that, he says the ultimate end of the universe is truth. This seems even more contentious. Particularly in modern times when we see the universe as vast and largely empty, a universe which, with each new scientific investigation, seems increasingly complex and inhuman.
What St Thomas means by saying that the end of the universe is truth, is that the search for truth of all human beings must always be more than a personal search. It must take in all reality because we are part of that reality. We have to see ourselves as parts of the whole. It is creation that will be redeemed. That is why the Bible promises ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (Revelation 21:1). More to the point, the truth that St Thomas is talking about is not just any truth but the truth which is the origin of all truth, (‘non cuiuslibet, sed eius veritatis quae est origo omnis veritatis’, Summa Contra Gentiles Book 1, chapter 1, Paragraph 5.)
This is the truth which we speak of in the Dominican Order. Our motto is Veritas, which means the truth, and not a truth. It isn’t the truth in any abstract sense but the truth which has called us. This truth is much less the truth we find than the truth that finds us. To quote again from the Summa Contra Gentiles, ‘The divine wisdom testifies that, having taken flesh, he came into the world for the manifestation of the truth, when he says in the Gospel of St John (18:37), ‘I was born in this, and came for this into the world, so that I might testify to the truth.’
We are led by Christ into this truth, yet it is the truth beyond our understanding. As St Thomas says, we can only say what God is not, not what he is. It remains for those who are admitted into the vision of the Divinity, to see Him as He really is. This negative process is still valuable, teaching us to reject the things that are not God, especially when we think that they are God. God is never what we think, but is greater than our hearts, as is said in the First letter of St John. For this reason, I would say that St Thomas’ successors in the fourteenth century, the century after he lived, were much more the mystics than the scholastic theologians who came after him. These mystics often wrote in the vernacular, such as the unknown author of ‘The Cloud of unknowing’ in English, St Catherine of Siena in italian, or Johannes Tauler in German. The use of the vernacular is a sign that they were trying to reach ordinary people, not just professional theologians. The mystics seek the truth that eludes us yet calls us into its own being, the God who is always inviting us to share his life. With the mystics, guided by the wisdom of St Thomas we can continually let go of our idolatrous tendencies, seeking to worship God alone. Prayer and thought go together here, leading us forwards beyond thought to a deep acceptance of the mystery, upwards and onwards, evermore and evermore.